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Antarctica as a Backdrop for Women in Science

Photo by Songqiao Yao.

Photo by Songqiao Yao.

The inaugural voyage of the Homeward Bound initiative, comprising 76 women with critical science backgrounds, returned safely from a 21-day trip to Antarctica.

The goal of Homeward Bound is to elevate the voices of women in science and to encourage them to play a large role in influencing scientific policy. The organizers hope to reach 1,000 women over 10 years.

One of the goals of Homeward Bound is to discuss sustainability and global issues related to climate change, making Antarctica a fitting backdrop because of its importance in the study of global warming. 

“Women are earning a significant percentage of college degrees and contribute to a significant percentage of our workforce,” Joanna Young, a PhD candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks writes in the Homeward Bound flag report. “However, they are in the minority globally when it comes to executive decision-making roles. By developing the leadership and strategic skills of these women, and a strong, purposefully developed network, they will be able to impact policy and decisions towards a sustainable future.”

A documentary film about Homeward Bound is being produced, and it has been selected as part of the Global Pitch initiative.

The next Homeward Bound voyage will set sail at the end of this year. For more information about the project, visit https://homewardboundprojects.com.au.

Read the full Homeward Bound flag report here.

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A Day Without Women of Discovery

International Women’s Day acknowledges the achievements of women around the world. This year, women are uniting and holding a strike to call attention to the significant contributions women make in society. In solidarity, we are recognizing five WINGS fellows whose incredible discoveries significantly advanced their respective fields of science. Without these trailblazers, our understanding of the world and the universe surely would be hindered. They are truly Women of Discovery. To learn more about the rest of our Fellows and the incredible work they do, visit our Fellows page.

SUE HENDRICKSON

Sue Hendrickson has been involved in major discoveries both on land and in sea. She helped excavate a 400-year-old sunken ship, called the San Diego, off the coast of the Philippines as well as Heracleopolis, a city of ruins, located in Egypt. She is best known for discovering Sue the T-Rex, the largest and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil. She won the WINGS Sea Award in 2005.

 

 

BEATE G. LIEPERT

Dr. Beate G. Liepert discovered the phenomenon of global dimming – the reduction of sunlight that reaches Earth’s surface, thought to be caused by pollution. When she made global dimming the subject of her doctoral thesis, she almost wasn’t granted her PhD because no one believed her results. A year later, Liepert’s thesis was cited in the first United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climatic Change Report, contributing to how we understand climate change today. She was given the 2016 WINGS Women of Discovery Earth Award this past October.

 

KATY PAYNE

Katy Payne began her career with a bachelor’s degree in music. She went on to study the songs of humpback whales until she and two colleagues discovered infrasonic calling in elephants, low-frequency sounds that allow elephants to communicate. She went on to found the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University, whose work has been instrumental in advancing elephant conservation programs in Africa. Payne was presented with the WINGS Earth Award in 2004.

 

 

VERA RUBIN

It was the late Vera Rubin who discovered that the universe is comprised mainly of dark matter, an unidentifiable substance that is distinct from ordinary matter. Rubin’s work shapes the way humans understand the universe, but she was also a fierce advocate for women and minorities. From the time she was in high school, when her physics teacher advised her not to study science in college, she broke down barriers for those who wanted to pursue astronomy but were not permitted. She was given the WINGS Air & Space Award in 2004.

 

 

EDITH WIDDER

For centuries humans have searched in vain for proof of the giant squid. It wasn't until 2012 when oceanographer and deep-sea explorer Edith Widder, along with two other scientists, captured the squid on video for the first time in its natural deep-sea habitat using specialized camera equipment that she designed. She also discovered that the suckers on a deep sea octopus are bioluminescent. She won the WINGS Sea Award in 2006.

 

 

To learn more about International Women’s Day and how to participate, visit internationalwomensday.com.

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Antarctica as a Model for Other Worlds

WINGS Fellow Rosaly Lopes returned safely from her expedition to study Mount Erebus, home to one of the planet’s only lava lakes – a unique geological phenomenon found more commonly on Jupiter’s moon Io than Earth.  Lopes has studied Io extensively with her work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Lopes spent one month on Mount Erebus, which is located on Antarctica, and is the southernmost active volcano on Earth.

Together with astronomical artist and science writer Michael Carroll, she is working on a book project that will use landscapes in Antarctica as a model to help envision what other planets look like.  The book will also feature accounts from Lopes and Carroll about what it was like to live and work on Antarctica.

Lopes and Carroll met all of their goals, which were to reach at least one ice cave on Mount Erebus, the Tower Ridge on the upper slopes of Erebus, and the summit of Erebus to photograph the crater and lava lakes.

Antarctica’s strict protections against human impact mean that, as an almost entirely untouched place, it’s ideal for scientists who want to study the Earth – and also highlights the need to continue to protect the continent.

“It’s a good example for exploration, and maybe we should follow that on many other places on Earth,” Lopes said.

To learn more about Lopes’ expedition, read her full flag report.

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Documenting the Female Chiefs of Maewo Island

On a small island located west of Fiji exists an anthropological anomaly: a group of female chiefs. Maewo Island is the only country in Melanesia with female chiefs, who are called ngwotari.

Explorer Sophie Hollingsworth carried the WINGS Flag on an expedition to this island in the Pacific Island Nation of Vanuatu to document their practices. The women seek to gain official status from the National Council of Chiefs of Vanuatu, which they have previously been denied.

In performing the first and only ethnographic study on these women, Hollingsworth’s work may help the female chiefs gain official status.

During the festival, the women demonstrated their practices and powers, undertook grade promotions, engaged in traditional dancing and performed secret ceremonies, including the use of black and white magic. Hollingsworth also visited nearby villages to learn more about both female and male chiefs.

Hollingsworth participated in the local customs of sand drawing, water music, bird calling and constellation naming.

Initially she visited the island with a team; however, they left and Hollingsworth stayed alone on the island for an additional month.

Hollingsworth spoke about her experience at a recent Explorer Talk event hosted by WINGS WorldQuest. She demonstrated speaking Bislama, the local native language. She learned how to speak the language by taking lessons over Skype with a tribe member who formerly lived on the island.

“It’s not like there’s a Rosetta Stone for Bislama,” Hollingsworth said. “That would have made things so much easier.”

When asked what piece of information about her experience she would bring back to Americans, Hollingsworth answered: “There is more than one way of doing things.”

She touched upon this in her recently published flag report:

There is a troubling fallacy that pockets of communities practicing traditional culture unconsumed by technology and globalization are somehow leftovers of a past era. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are modern men and women who continue to defend their unique way of life and prove that there are other ways of interacting with the earth.

For more information about Sophie Hollingsworth’s expedition, see her full flag report here, or visit her website, The Sofia Log.

Subscribe to our mailing list or follow us on social media to learn about future Explorer Talks and other upcoming events.

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5 Ways to Celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science

While women comprise 48 percent of the total U.S. workforce, they comprise just 24 percent of the science, technology, engineering, and math – or STEM – fields, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Women in science have made great strides over the last several decades, but the numbers are clear ... We have a long way to go.

In late 2015, the United Nations declared February 11 International Day of Women and Girls in Science to recognize the contributions of women to the scientific fields and to help empower women and girls to continue to transform the world. The need for science-based evidence in policymaking is increasingly crucial, and we know that women are part of the solution.

Here are five ways you can celebrate women and girls in science today:

 

1. Learn about a woman in science.

Though they have not always been recognized, throughout history women have made contributions to the fields of science and exploration. Take a moment to learn about women scientists throughout history and the 79 women who have received the WINGS' Women of Discovery Award since 2003.  

2. Sign the 500 Women Pledge.

Last year, a group of five women scientists drafted an open letter to reaffirm their commitment to inclusivity in society and scientific enterprise. More than 16,000 women from around the world have now added their names to the letter. If you are a woman in science, sign the pledge here.

3. March for Science.

On Earth Day, April 22, scientists and science enthusiasts alike will march in solidarity to support publicly-funded science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.

Click here to march with WINGS.

Click here to find a march in your area.

4. Register your action.

If you take action, submit it to the official womeninscienceday.org website, where you will be added to the collective voice on Parity in Science.

5. Support WINGS.

WINGS WorldQuest showcases the under-recognized discoveries and accomplishments of women explorers, promotes women working in the field sciences, and inspires the next generation of pathfinders. Since its founding in 2003, WINGS has provided more than $600,000 in unrestricted funding to women in science and exploration. You can make a tax-deductible donation to WINGS here.

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In Tribute to Vera Rubin

Courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington

Courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington

In the 113 years that the Nobel Prize has been awarded, only two women have ever received the prize for Physics: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

This past October, a public furor ensued when the Nobel Prize Committee failed to award any women at all with the Prize. The outcry also inspired an unofficial online campaign to call attention to the Committee’s failure to recognize the contributions of Vera Rubin, a WINGS Fellow who discovered that the universe is comprised mainly of dark matter, an unidentifiable substance that is distinct from ordinary matter.

The call to recognize Rubin was urgent, as she was 88 at the time. Nobel Prizes can be awarded only to the living.

Rubin died on December 25. Although she did win other awards, many were critical of the Committee’s oversight and lamented that she would never be recognized with the Prize. (Not even Mahatma Gandhi was given the award posthumously.)

Even so, Rubin leaves behind a remarkable legacy in the way that we now understand the universe. But she was also a fierce advocate for women in science. She was a pioneer – at times, even a rebel.

Rubin grew up in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; from the age of 10 she knew that she wanted to be an astronomer.

In a 1992 interview for the publication Mercury, she said, “I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. I didn’t know a single astronomer, male or female. Being a woman didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t think that all astronomers were male, because I didn’t know. I didn’t even know how you became an astronomer.”

When she received a scholarship to attend Vassar College, her high school physics teacher told her, “You should do OK as long as you stay away from science.”

She studied astronomy.

She married a physicist and had four children, two of whom were geologists, one of whom was a mathematician, and her only daughter, Dr. Judith Young, who died in 2014 at the age of 61, was also an astronomer.

In 1947, Rubin was denied admittance to the Princeton graduate school because women were not allowed to study there. Princeton didn’t allow women to study graduate physics until 1971, graduate astronomy until 1975 and graduate math until 1976, according to a talk Rubin gave at a 1990 conference on retaining women in physics.

She was the first woman to be legally permitted to observe at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego, California. Historically, observatories did not allow women; one argument was that they did not have the appropriate bathroom facilities to accommodate them.

In the same Mercury article, Rubin recounted a story about the bathroom on the ground floor of Palomar, which still bore a “Men” sign, nearly 30 years after she had first observed there:

“About two years ago, I sort of got annoyed at this ‘Men’ sign and I cut out a little figure with a skirt and pasted it up,” she said. “It stayed for the four days I was there, but it wasn’t there the next year.”

When asked why Rubin thought she was the first woman permitted to observe there, she said “Let me hope that the work I was doing was interesting enough.”

In 1976 when the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum debuted its first planetarium show, a feature on 200 years of American astronomy, it included only men, all but one of them white. After lobbying for months to have the presentation corrected, she was told that the show was recorded and could not be changed.

In her collection of essays, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters, Rubin writes firsthand about astronomy, as well as women in science. At the time, women constituted less than 5 percent of all physicists and less than 7 percent of all astronomers. She notes that despite the contributions of both women and minorities to astronomy, there are limited opportunities for those groups to enter the field.

In her 1990 essay “Opening the Doors,” she writes at length about what can be done to encourage more women to work in science: she says that little girls need role models and that women students should not quit.

Despite knowing that obstacles lay ahead for women, she remained optimistic:

“For any who wish to be an astronomer, rather than marry one, and who are willing to work for it, I hope your lives will be filled with many options.”

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